Friday, February 29, 2008

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — James Gist was unstoppable in the first half. Greivis Vasquez was nearly as good after the break.

Put together, it was just enough for Maryland to escape Joel Coliseum with a much-needed victory.

Gist scored a career-high 31 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, and Vasquez added 24 points and eight assists as the Terrapins surged past Wake Forest 74-70 in a bubble battle for both teams.

Maryland (18-11, 8-6 ACC) snapped a two-game skid to complete a season sweep of the Demon Deacons (16-10, 6-7), who had won 18 of 19 home games since the Terps won in Winston-Salem last season.

The victory stabilizes the Terps’ chase for an NCAA tournament berth while simultaneously damaging the Deacons’ hopes. Though Maryland still must further burnish its postseason resume, a victory on Tobacco Road stemmed concerns the season might be slipping away.

“Our sole focus was just on getting this game,” Gist said. “We weren’t looking at things past this game. I think everybody was focused on Wake Forest because we knew we need three wins. We know we can’t get three wins without getting this win first.”

James Johnson led Wake Forest with 25 points and 14 rebounds.

Even as the Terps ground out tight games over the last two months, one trend became apparent: They direly need both Gist and Vasquez to play well in order to have a decent chance to win.

Maryland is 0-6 when Gist fails to score at least 10 points, a problem that did not resurface last night. The forward displayed both an inside and outside game, punishing Wake Forest for not paying heed to his perimeter shooting and later grinding down the Deacons inside.

Vasquez, too, is an obvious vital cog, and he scored nine straight points during one stretch as the Terps opened up a 68-57 lead while relying on their two top scorers.

Both Gist and Vasquez were 9-for-15 from the floor, and it appeared coach Gary Williams emphasized making sure the Terps rose or fell on the merits of their two best players.

“The priority is win and play hard — just play hard,” Vasquez said. “I thought James as a senior did a great job of leading us the whole time, just his intensity and his energy.”

It started in the locker room for Gist, who was conspicuously quiet on the court since a 30-point masterpiece against N.C. State on Feb. 9. Held in check by suddenly attentive defenders for two weeks, Gist implored his teammates to push hard for a critical road victory.

He did his part throughout, scoring 18 points in the first half and then providing a lift late in the game to help make up for the struggles of the ailing Bambale Osby (ear infection). Gist made a pair of free throws to halt a 7-0 Wake Forest run, and his free throw with 31 seconds left bumped the lead to 73-70 and ensured the Deacons couldn’t do more than tie on the next possession.

Wake Forest couldn’t manage that as Harvey Hale missed a 3-pointer. Naturally, it was Gist who corralled the rebound and added an extra free throw to polish off the victory with 5.4 seconds left.

“I said I just have to be more aggressive,” Gist said. “Just being more aggressive was my motivation tonight. I knew if I had a good game that the team was probably going to have a good game.”

And so the Terps did, improving their postseason prospects against the backdrop of so many other tournament contenders stumbling this week. The victory also was earned even though the Terps played far from a perfect game, committing 20 turnovers and yielding 16 offensive rebounds.

For one night, anyway, it was no big deal. Maryland regained a bit of its wiggle room even with last week’s mini-slide. Win a couple more — notably Sunday’s visit from Clemson — and the potent Gist and Vasquez Show could wind up on a bigger stage.

“It’s not going to be perfect with us this year, but we know how we have to play now in order to be successful,” Williams said. “… It’s been tough the last week because we had put ourselves in a pretty good position. This win helps us get back to a decent position. It keeps you going this time of year.”

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